Theories and Principles for Planning and Enabling Learning

Fitts and Posners Phases of Learning

In order to start to learn a new motor skill our body needs to learn
how to control its limbs in such a way that will benefit a certain
action. Obviously we dont learn this straight away it takes time to
learn and to process all this information so that we can improve and
progress from being a novice to being proficient.

Fitts and Posener were able to identify several different stages in
the learning process. Learning is a complex process and the stages, or
phases labelled by Fitts and Posner, are not clear-cut. You will be
able to create more successful learning processes if these phases are

In 1964 Paul Fitts and Michael Posner developed a theory to explain
how our body learns to do this. They divided it into three learning
stages which have been split up and explained below: –

1) The cognitive phase

This is first stage of learning where the performer learns what needs
to be done. The performer needs to find out,

– What is required

– What task is to be performed

– The rules are

– The correct way in holding specific equipment, e.g. a golf club

In this stage the emphasis is on the performer understanding what
needs to be achieved, so that initial simple plans of action can be
followed and achieved to a certain level of play. This specific stage
involves a lot of trial end error, so that the professional teaching
can give positive feedback to the performer, in order to improve his/
her game. The successful strategies can be reinforced at this stage
and unsuccessful should not be dismissed due to the fact that all
experiences can be worthwhile.

External feedback is also achieved via observing other performers at
higher levels. For example a teacher may show a learning player,
trying to get a grip on the basics, the swing of Tiger woods, so that
the learner can manipulate it into their own swing.

The skill is mainly performed in a closed environment with as little
outside variables as possible so the performer can achieve the basics
of the game.

2) The associative phase

This is the intermediate stage, and can take much longer than the
Cognitive stage. During this stage the performer learns through many
hours of practising in open and closed conditions as they try to
develop their skill. For golf the performer will be most likely to
practice in closed conditions, as it is not a team game, however for
football it may be different.

The cognitive feedback has been learned so that the different parts of
the skill can be performed and co-ordinated together, therefore giving
an outcome desired by a learner. Significant errors are detected and
corrected with and without the help of exterior sources such as
coaches and videos of their performance. The performer aims to refine
the skill In this stage.

This is the stage at which a large majority of performers never
overcome, as the next stage is describes as Automatic, however most
performers find that they excel and improve the largest amount in this
stage (phase) as the most feedback is given.

3) The autonomous phase

This is the stage that high-level performers participate at. This is
only ever achieved after much practice and experience, often taking
years, some players never even manage to reach this phase. In this
stage the performer is so elite that the skill is like nothing to them
they perform it almost automatically or habitually.


A performer doesnt leap from one stage to another it is more of a
gradual transitional movement as they develop their control. I find
that this can be best illustrated on a continuum, running from the
first phase (cognitive) to the final phase, where the performer is
highly talented (Autonomous): –

1) Cognitive phase 2) Associative phase 3) Autonomous phase


Beginner Highly Skilled

Shown above is the continuum. However performers at the cognitive
stage will have different structured practices to those who fall in
the category of the autonomous phase. For instance, a beginner in the
game of golf will practice trying to gain and acquire the proper grip
and posture to hit the ball. A highly skilled golfer may structure
practices to draw, fade, or gain extra spin on the greens. This would
not be a suitable ambition for a beginner as he she would not be able
to do it until they fell into the later stages.

To structure practices for people at a Cognitive phase of learning the
performer should observe another performer doing the correct skill.
The person learning the skill should then try to imitate the skill.
Whist they are doing this the performer should have feedback from an
external source like a teacher or a coach, or in my case golf
professional, depending on the sport the performer is aiming to
acquire a skill in. The emphasis should be on understanding what has
to be done and the vital parts of the skill should be achieved. The
performer must be praised when good things are achieved to boost their
confidence and notify that that part was accomplished well. These
sessions should be quite short about 20-30 minutes; this is the
average length of a golf lesson.

To structure practices for people at Associative stage of learning you
would need to have a long training period, which could be years,
depending on the amount of time the performer is willing to spend
trying to achieve through practice per week or even day.

At this stage the performer may also try to create a training
programme in order to become the perfect shape for their sport, e.g.
for golf I try to increse my flexibility and upper body strength so as
to increase my mobility through out my swing path.

Structured practices for people at the Autonomous stage of learning.
In this stage coaching should Be in small groups in order to gain the
most benefit as there will only be small errors in the skill which may
otherwise be missed and wont be highlighted and improved upon. Praise
is not usually given in this phase of development as it is a tactic
used to make the golfer or other sport performer feel better, and that
they are being acknowledged.

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